Featured Trip Reports

170s in the Wrangells

Two big-engined Cessna 170s venture out to explore the Nizina river valley, a narrow region between the massive Wrangell and St Elias mountain ranges that is a pilot's paradise of airstrips, public cabins, and the natural wonders of Alaska.

By | May 26, 2015 12:00 am
Video

The Plan

I don't know what it is about the first week of May in the Alaska. Perhaps it's my good luck, perhaps a special alignment of the moon and sun. A year ago on May 1st, Brad Damm and I arrived in Anchorage flying a brand new CubCrafters Top Cub (a features series still under development), having ferried it from the factory in Yakima, Washington during a period of the most glorious week of clear and sunny high pressure. The long days of sun without a cloud in the sky, these were probably an unrealistic first impression to a land that has a reputation for unforgiving weather. But upon returning to Anchorage a year later almost to the day, I was once again treated to sunny skies and temps in the 60's, which was good because I had plans.

One of my favorite aspects of being involved with BackcountryPilot.org is meeting our members in person. In fact, it's pretty much how I know everyone I know in aviation. Despite my vision for a community unconcerned with aircraft type, I somehow fell in with a group of Cessna 170 pilots from Alaska: Greg Andersen, Larry Levin, and Simon Hamm, and one former 170 owner from Boston-- the illustrious Greg Hren AKA Bigrenna, who has since graduated to a Skywagon that he performed his infectious magic on.

Our camaraderie really had nothing to do with bonding over the aircraft— they are just a great group of guys who coincidentally all fly 170s. We hatched a plan to take a 3-day trip immediately after the Alaska Airmen's Great Alaska Aviation Gathering. Where to? Anywhere. The indecision was infuriating as to where we should head, until I saw a photo posted on Alaska.org's public use cabins website.

Peavine Bar airstrip and cabin. Photo: Alaska.org

The Peavine Bar public use cabins. That was it. That was where I wanted to go. The shear visible depth of the valley, the steepness of the canyon walls, and the reputation of the Wrangells sucked me in. After all, this is where Paul Claus, one of the most well known and respected modern bush pilots calls his home (Ultima Thule Lodge.) Located inside Wrangell-St.Elias National park, they're part of a system of rustic cabins owned and managed by the Park Service; more information and maps available here. The weather forecast for the next several days called for sunny skies and barely a lick of wind. I was hopeful.

But wait, first the Airmen's Show! There were the usual suspects— CubCrafters arrived in style in a beautiful Carbon Cub amphibian, Zenith Air and Just Aircraft each had their STOL LSA's on the floor, and of course the Dan's Aircraft raffle Super Cub was there, tempting the wallets of every attendee for a $50 ticket to dream. In my humble opinion though, the star of the show was the Glasair Sportsman 2+2 of Glasair founder Ted Setzer. Featuring an optional set of Cub-style gear legs and a beautifully custom-crafted straight tail, the orange and grey machine had everyone asking if this was their new backcountry entry. More on that later.

Just SuperSTOL Cessna 185 Skywagon

I met Andersen, Hren, Simon, and Larry at the Airmen's show last year, so we'd already spent hours upon hours shooting the breeze about airplanes and 170s and gear and gadgets and everything in between. Andersen calls Soldotna home, where he keeps what is inarguably the nicest, most well-equipped Cessna 170B I have ever encountered. Hangared next door is yet another Greg...err Gregg Motonaga. Everybody goes by last names from here on out if they're named Greg. Motonaga is an Aviat Husky pilot who had spent some time in Wrangells and happened to be heading that way too, so we resolved to join forces and depart together on Monday morning to take advantage of his experience in the area. Unfortunately, Simon couldn't join us due to work obligations, but regardless we carried his spirit along with us in the extended baggage.

This was kind of a new realm for Andersen and me. Despite having lived for 20+ years in Alaska, he's been flying for a modest 5 years but is wise beyond his hours, with a conservative approach that meshes well with my own. We had the talk. I wouldn't be shy about weighing in on the planning, the flying, the decision making, or any of it. It felt good to be honest and ditch the egos. We were both newbies, this was Alaska, and nothing is gained by pretense or pride.

8:30am at Soldotna, closing the hangar doors and preparing to start up Here's a nice product placement for our sponsor Flight Resource, distributors of MT Propellers, the source of that magical whirrrrrrring sound

While I was teamed up with Andersen, Hren and Larry were eager to get out of Dodge so they departed Sunday afternoon for an undetermined destination with only the general region of Cordova in mind. While I spent one more night in a nice double bed, they ended up in tents on a gravel bar of the Copper River. Can't say I blame them.

Greg Hren and Larry spent the night camped on a gravel bar on the Copper river after flying to Cordova the night before. Photo Greg Hren.

Direct to the Wrangells via Valdez

The plan had been to meet at Peavine Bar at 2pm Monday. Remember, cell phones generally don't work out here. Andersen and Motonaga had satellite phones but team Hren and Larry didn't, so we went old-fashioned style and just set a rendezvous point and time. We loaded the birds and launched at 9:00 AM sharp from Soldotna with Motonaga in the lead in his Husky.

Previously, the plan had been to fly a circuitous but very safe route north to Anchorage, up the Matanuska river and Glenn Highway to Gulkana, and then south along the Copper river to Chitina. From there we'd head east to the Nizina river and into the Wrangells. This is a route that can be flown at pretty much legal VFR minimums (and probably lower), but today was special. The weather was as good as it gets. Motonaga pulled up the winds aloft forecast, which was 4 knots at 6,000 MSL. If ever there was a day to go direct, over the Prince William Sound and the Chugach, over Valdez and Thompson Pass, this was it. See the revised route.

We were not disappointed.

Motonaga in his Aviat Husky somewhere over the Chugach and College Fjord

I usually preface most pieces I write here with the fact that I am a pretty low time pilot, in hopes that people won't hang their lives off my words. Yet the flying experiences I have had at this point are extremely diverse. This is mostly due to the amazing people I meet (and fly with) here on BCP... and a fair bit of luck. The flight across the fjords of the Prince William Sound was positively otherworldly, and I'm not entirely sure I would have chosen this route had I been alone. This is a part of the North that characterizes Alaska for us dreamers, where massive glaciers flow at a millennial pace, terminating at the sea and calving into also-massive icebergs that litter the waters of the fjords. At around 10:00 AM, it was low tide so there were many beaches exposed by the lower water levels, giving us some hope for a landing should the engine blow its guts. It's flights like this that really make me appreciate the tried and true reliability of these simple old aircraft engines.

College Fjord and Port Wells beyond

Most of us in the bush plane world hear the name Valdez often— it's the home of the most well-known STOL contest in North America, but have you ever thought about where exactly it is? It's in a small natural port up the Valdez Arm, just in from the Prince William Sound, where 2 huge glaciers terminate, surrounded by massive snow capped peaks. It is an absolutely beautiful spot that can swirl with insane winds and turbulence or clouds and fog to the surface, but today it was extreme CAVU, zero wind. Breathtaking.

Valdez airport

Onward we flew past Valdez, entering Thompson Pass, a 2,800' MSL pass through the Chugach that would allow us to maintain our 5,500' MSL cruising altitude without having to climb over any significant terrain. For nearly the entire flight we had been talking to Pierre on the radio, who was trying to meet up with us in the air after departing the Anchorage area. Pierre hails from Santa Ynez, California and would be joining us for the next few days in his new Aviat Husky A1C. On his suggestion we planned to connect up the Copper River valley to the Hanagita River valley as a bit of a scenic shortcut to the Chitina river.

Thompson Pass

This flight was zipping by. I had placed certain limitations upon myself prior to leaving home, that I would only take still photographs with the intent to write a trip report like this. The reason being that life through a lens can be a bit limited. Spend all your time looking through a camera, shooting video that most often never turns into anything resembling a complete story, and you've limited your experience. Greg Hren had it figured out. Despite being a professional photographer, he left his SLR at home in hopes of being more present in the adventure instead of experiencing it by recording it. I couldn't help myself and started shooting video the minute we arrived at Soldotna airport. It's just something I do when I'm excited, and I didn't even do a very good job of it. So as we made the big turn up the Copper River valley, I fiddled and fussed with swapping lenses and shooting photos and video, living this trip through a lens just as I said I wouldn't.

Turning up the Copper river, perhaps named for its year round chocolate milk color? Or copper deposits?

Andersen has his shit together. Not only is his aircraft a specimen to behold, but he had me outfitted with a complete bright orange maritime survival vest equipped with flotation, dye markers, PLB, snack food, and a host of other critical goodies tucked away in the vest that I'm still not aware of. I brought my helmet with me on the trip, and he wears one too, so we both felt equally dorky. We may have looked like total goobers but I've never felt so prepared for the unthinkable on any previous flight, and actually more and more pilots I talk to are starting to wear helmets and survival vests for all flights. This area demands preparation and self-sufficiency, because there is just little out there. Even Greg Hren came prepared with his survival vest, for which he's planning to release a how-to video on putting together the flying survival vest that could probably also get you through a tour in Afghanistan.

In addition, both he and Motonaga have their airplanes equipped with Spidertracks, the short-interval flight tracking solution that is similar to the SPOT Tracker or the Delorme InReach, but it is wired to the on-board electrical system and activates automatically to provide a breadcrumb map for anyone with your personal URL to view.

Flying equipped in every way Behold the Chitina River valley, headed east toward the Nizina

We'd been in the cockpit a while. I had to take a leak bad. Motonaga and Pierre forged ahead to land at our first stop, May Creek.

May Creek

The public use cabin system in the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park is a first-come-first-serve type of operation. They have no reservation system, so you generally just go in hopes that the cabin you want is available. Motonaga had heard some chatter from other pilots that were also headed to the Wrangells at the same time, so the chances of getting the primo Peavine cabins looked slim. We decided to land first at May Creek (MYK) in hopes that the cabin there was still available, and to our good fortune it was! We unloaded our gear and marched it up the short trail to the surpringly posh public cabin and deployed our sleeping bags onto our chosen bunks to mark our territory.

May Creek airstrip is a great spot. Positioned on the gradually upsloping apron south of the Nizina river, it is one of the longer, smoother strips in the area. There's a mail cabin right on the strip, to be used for deposit of mail and parcels for nearby residents to come collect, and a short walk up the trail is a very newly constructed public cabin complete with wood stove, indoor and outdoor tables, windows, and bunks for 3 or 4 occupants. The most pleasantly surprising feature was the 1" thick Owens-Corning R-10 styrofoam toilet seat in the outhouse that conducted virtually zero heat from bare butt cheeks. If you've ever used a plastic portable toilet at near-freezing temperatures, you understand why this was such a treat.

This would be a great base of operations for the next 2 days.

Pierre in his yellow A1C taxiing to parking at May Creek. Andersen's stunning 170B bushplane The NPS public use cabin at May Creek

Slightly ahead of schedule, Hren and Larry announced their arrival over the CTAF and landed May Creek for a successful rendezvous. More aircraft also arrived— three Glasair Sportsman 2+2s.

This is where the story ties back in with the darling of the Airmen's show, as we were able to chat for a bit with Ted Setzer, co-founder of Glasair Aviation of Seattle, WA. Their composite kit aircraft have traditionally come equipped with steel spring gear legs and a swept tail similar to a modern Cessna, but this model was Ted's personal aircraft and he had left no stone unturned in a making it a backcountry machine. The 31” Bushwheels were attached to beefy Cub-style gear legs with bungee suspension. The most attractive part though, in my opinion, was the straight tail, modeled after a Cessna Skywagon. If I remember correctly, he also altered the ratio of flap length to aileron length to improve shortfield performance. After a fair amount of glad-handing with the Glasair guys, we decided to head over to Peavine Bar to see what it was like, since there was no way I was going to miss experiencing the scene from the photo. It turns out the Glasair guys were the ones who had staked their claim on the cabins there.

Glasair guys, up from the lower 48

Peavine Bar

One thing that flying in real, remote backcountry impresses upon the pilot most: The importance of a plan for acquiring fuel. Andersen's 170 was equipped with Flint tip tanks, giving us an additional 22 gallons on top of the standard 170 fuel capacity of 37.5 usable gallons. With full fuel, we departed Soldotna at the 170's maximum gross weigh of 2,200 lbs, but with the low density altitude and the extra ponies of the O-360, performance was still more than adequate. After a 3 hour flight burning about 9.5 GPH, that left us a healthy 32 gallons to explore the area before we needed to take on more fuel. The word from Motonaga was that we could get fuel at McCarthy, just a 15 minute flight from May Creek. We were golden, but you can see how an ethusiastic explorer could box themselves into a corner with too much play flying and the distance back to refuel.

Peavine is literally just around the corner from May Creek, a little less than 10 miles in a curving track. Andersen and I took off last of the group, now enjoying some snappier climb performance from the 170 as our gear was unloaded and the fuel burden lightened. We tucked in behind Pierre, then Hren and Larry in sequence to land the nearly 3,000 foot long elevated river bar strip. Motonaga set down last. We parked at the north end of the strip and walked over to the cabins to see what we were missing out on.

Peavine bar, nestled at the bottom of the Chittistone River valley

The big cabin at Peavine has several bunks and 2 tables, with a wood stove right in the middle of the room. It's a great choice for a family camping destination, but pack too many guys in there after a gourmet dinner of hot dogs or Mountain House Beef Stroganoff and you're going to have sleep with your oxygen bottle and canula strapped on.

The usual suspects: Medium Greg, Larry, Big Greg; all members of the Cessna 170 fraternity

I'd about had it with the mosquitoes. This was an unseasonably early thaw year, in fact some locals said it was the earliest in memory. That put us square in the middle of the hatch, whereas last year at this time it wasn't really noticeable. Even if you're smart enough to bring along some DEET and you've applied, the reaction to the little bastards flying around your face and ears causes an involuntary and incessant swiping and swatting at the air. They're big too. Motonaga had his act together with The Bug Shirt, which I now feel is completely worth its price after getting DEET on my lip and having it go numb.

The Bug Shirt makes satellite communication from the bush a much more pleasant experience

We were getting hungry for some astronaut meals so we loaded into the airplanes and fired up for the long flight back to May Creek.

15 minutes later, standing around on the ground back at MYK, swatting at gagging mosquitoes while sipping Denali Brewing IPA, we heard the unmistakeable sound of a Skywagon inbound and were soon greeted by my friend Matt Conklin (Matt 7GCBC) and his 9 year old son Miles, up for a boys' vacation from Boise, Idaho. Matt is one of the nicest, most humble guys I know, but I would not hesitate to call him an overachiever. A modest emergency room physician by day, he moonlights as a Part 135 cargo pilot, Reno air racer, and Valdez STOL competitor, not to mention that he's an intrepid adventurer in the Alaskan bush, operating on wheels, floats, and skis. His Skywagon is loaded with some great bush mods, and if you watch the video for this story you'll see his takeoff from the Jake's Bar airstrip on the Chitina River.

The Monday evening lineup at May Creek

The Conklin boys were having a great time, and were headed over to Paul Claus' lodge to participate in a invitational geocaching scavenger hunt with a bunch of other pilots, but in the mean time they were just doing some exploring and having a ball. He later sent me the below photo of one of his river bar landings. The following weekend Matt would place second in the heavy touring class at Valdez.

Matt 7GCBC's Cessna 180 Skywagon in the background while son Miles scrambles across the river rock.Photo: Matt Conklin You'd think the campfire smoke would ward off mosquitoes, but they seemed immune and unfazed.

The days are long this time of year at 62 degrees North, and bedtime is deceptively elusive. We sat around the campfire after dinner, trading stories and debating the big issues like the merits of angle-of-attack indicators and whether the ideal Super Cub is a certfied classic or an Experimental kit plane. Not having Internet access is probably the most healthy therapy a person from the modern business world can get. It hurts at first but after a few days I started to dread returning to my overflowing inbox and deluge of missed text messages. As a result my iPhone battery charge lasted 2.5 days. My wife and family were able to monitor Andersen's Spidertracks page for some peace of mind, so there was little reason to be worried about being off the grid.

The next morning was wide open in terms of an objective so we decided to fly on up the Nizina to check out the glaciers and see what we could find that was landable.

Nizina amphitheater

If you've made it this far in the story, I commend your committment. There really is no drama, no suspenseful scary flying "live-to-tell" elements to this tale, which are sometimes necessary to keep readers engaged; this is just pure travelogue style. While this rugged land, and the means by which we are exploring it is certainly to be respected, at no time did I ever feel like this was a daring adventure. The bear poop was all berries, no whistles and bells and cayenne fortunately. My biggest concern of the trip was how dry the woods were. Larry informed me that this is actually peak fire danger for Alaska, until the rains begin in July; quite a contrast to the lower 48 where we often get smoked out in August.

The Nizina river area is a place I've wanted to visit for years, ever since a Husky-flying BCP member aptly named "Nizina" started posting photos of his home airstrip. While we didn't actually get to land his strip due to conflicting schedules and a PIREP for muddy conditions, he did advise us with a lot of good intel in the days prior at the Airmen's show. Last winter he posted some photos on Facebook of he and another Husky pilot landing on the bluish ice of the Amphitheater, on wheels. It was an amazing sight, and as Andersen and I motored up the river valley in Zero Six Bravo, I could see the streaming glacial flow and the rugged seracs come into view.

The mighty Nizina in early May.

The thing about flying in these river valleys that will never cease to blow my mind is the shear vertical rise of the terrain in such a short distance. If you look at the photo above, you can see how narrow and deep the cut is. It just makes for a visually stunning experience, and yet the sand and gravel bars st the river surface below are a relatively safe place to land in the event of an emergency. Hren and Larry had seen a huge grizz loping along the river bank the day prior, and I worked on putting that out of my mind just as we were about to land the Nizina Amphitheater Creek airstrip.

The amphitheater itself is incredible. It's a huge bowl surrounded by mountains where the Regal and Rohn glaciers collide and become the Nizina river. This time of year the surface of the headwater is still frozen, with massive icebergs erupting through like tiny mountains. It was starting to show some signs of thaw though; probably not a wise decision to land it. Amphitheater Creek gravel strip on the southwest shoulder of the river though was a nice, smooth, and long landing zone. The Huskies dropped in first followed by Andersen and me, then Hren and Larry. We did what all pilots do on missions like this: We land, get out, stand around discussing what we just did and what we're going to do next. Then we pile into the aircraft and rocket off to the next spot; AKA "strip bagging." It can be controversial in more highly pressured or populated areas, but out here it's not a big deal. There's no one else out here.

Critical decisions being made.

Somehow Andersen and I missed the plan that we were going to fly Chittistone Pass and loop back down the river past Peavine Bar, so on Motonaga's radioed intentions, we continued northeast up a canyon offshoot from the Nizina glaciers. Staring at big icy rising terrain out in front of you as the late morning winds start to announce themselves can be a touch intimidating. The Husky pilots continued on up the canyon into what appeared to be a route with some pretty serious terrain clearance requirements. We radioed that we were turning back down-valley and just flew back down the Nizina. What we couldn't see well from our vantage point was a clear pass in the mountains that dropped into the upper Chittistone and made for a short flight right back down to the Nizina. The guys all raved that it was incredible, but oh well-- discretion is the better part of valor.

The Regal and Rohn glaciers coming together at Chimney mountain.

We joined back up in the air at the confluence of the Chittistone and Nizina and headed for McCarthy, where we'd fuel up prior to Motonaga and Pierre leaving us for the coast. It would have been fun to join them and see that part of Alaska, but at this point weather was still a bit of an unknown, as it was supposed to change overnight to overcast as some low pressure moved in. I had to catch my flight home, and staying close to the valleys was what we decided.

Jake's Bar

McCarthy is a smooth, nicely surfaced dirt/gravel airport that has cardlock fuel available. It is not for public sale though-- an account is required, so prior to depending on this as a critical fuel stop, make sure you're set up with them. We all topped off with fuel in anticipation of flying back to the Anchorage area in the morning, which wasn't ideal as we were about to land the 1,000' Jake's Bar airstrip on the Chitina river, but it was our only chance to get the fuel. Never say no to fuel in the backcountry.

Larry fuels his bird at McCarthy.

After saying our goodbyes to the Husky guys, we took a short detour flight up the Kennicott glacier and over the abandoned Kennecott mining camp, where the distinctly red-painted buildings and structures have fallen into obvious disrepair (even collapse) since the end of mining operations in the 1960's. It's mostly a tourist attraction as pilot/tourists are likely the only people with the means to access and the interest in the history of such destinations.

Up the Kennicott glacier and the southside of Regal mountain we flew, hugging the steep walls of the canyon. Winds were very light, almost imperceptible, and despite expecting the worst in this big glacial gully, it was as smooth as butter. The glacier continues flowing all the way out to McCarthy, but the ice is peppered with dirt and wind-blown sand and gravel to the point where it becomes unrecognizable as ice. It is certainly a surface that I hope to never have to let down in.

Matt and Miles in their 180 at Jake's Bar

We set out for Jake's Bar, an airstrip that was famous in my mind for my friend Jake, who visited a few years ago in his 170, and snapped a photo of some bears hanging out at the end of the strip. Jake, at Jake's Bar. Seems right.

Upon arrival, it instantly became clear that this was where I would have rather spent the night. The airstrip was short and cobbled with river rock but plenty smooth enough for 8.50's. It was right on the river, unlike May Creek which is fairly removed from the water. It had a cabin too. We were embedded at May Creek though, and while there was plenty of time, going back to get our gear, pack it into the aircraft, and come back here was going to be laborious. We resolved to just fill our water jugs, enjoy the moment, and return to May Creek. We watched Matt and Miles depart, headed out for their last evening at Peavine.

The harsh life of a Wrangell spruce. Most of these were long gone for some reason, but their deadfall made great firewood.

Only the crews of the 170s remained on our last night. We put a dent in the Denali Brewing Amber ale 12-pack that Motonaga had left behind, which we in turn left behind for the next lucky occupant of the cabin. Prior to this trip, I had been excited about the opportunity to stargaze in such a remote area, unpolluted by the light of the city. But as I learned, the length of the day in the northern lattitudes, combined with a full moon shot that idea down. I did wander outside around 4:30am to relieve my bladder and was treated to an utterly magical full moon shining on the birch trees. A more dedicated photographer would have grabbed his gear but I retreated inside and crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Greg Hren, AKA "Bigrenna," owner of a pristine '66 Skywagon, and the man responsible for the recent craze of Cessna overhaul madness, relaxes with Zero Six Bravo at the May Creek airstrip.

Headed home

We awoke on Wednesday morning to a bit of a weather surprise-- it was completely clear and sunny. We'd expected some low pressure to move in overnight and possibly even a low level flight out to Chitina and Gulkana, but once again my luck held. We loaded our gear, Larry dumped in his remaining fuel cans, and we fired up for the flight out to Gulkana.

Andersen generously allowed me to take the reigns on Zero Six Bravo for the remaining flights, which was an honor. I hadn't flown a 170 in 5 years since selling my own in 2010, but it was like flying an old friend.

We tore out of May Creek with a fury, the 180 horsepower Lycoming O-360 and composite MTV-15 at fine pitch getting us airborne in seconds as I milked on a little more than 20 degrees flaps to break the surface. I leveled off in ground effect and built up a little airspeed for the climb out, and pulled the prop back a touch. We turned downriver and leveled off at 2,000 feet as Hren and Larry flew the deck, looking for more grizzlies.

I was in the final hours of an incredible trip, in a state of pure joy flying this utterly improved version of my old airplane, in smooth air and the morning sun at our backs. I wish I could say that landing a 170 smoothly is like riding a bike, but luckily Andersen's 170 also has 180 gear legs and bushwheels to absorb the abuse. I'd like to extend a huge thanks to him and Larry for allowing us to use their airplanes, as well as Gregg Motonaga and Pierre Josefsohn for being great guides and overall fun flying buddies.

I realize that this trip was a mere scratch in the surface of what is available in Alaska for backcountry flying adventures, and the destinations we chose were fairly mellow in the grand scheme of backcountry flying. Nothing we did required particularly short operation, and it was all pretty low elevation; STOL aircraft not required. This trip was about adventure-- exploring a place we'd never been and knew little about. There is so much more available in the Wrangell-St Elias, limited only by one's skill, equipment, and knowledge. If I have my way I'll soon return for the next round.

Being dropped off at the Lake Hood gravel strip.

For more information on available public use cabins in the state of Alaska, visit the website.

For more information on exploring Wrangell-St.Elias National Park by air, visit the National Park Service's Guide to Backcountry Airstrips.

The full gallery

Here's the full photo gallery of about 65 photographs. Enjoy!

Zzz

Zane Jacobson

Zane Jacobson is the founder/editor of Backcountry Pilot and currently flies a variety of rental aircraft around his home area of Portland, Oregon while continuing construction of his Bearhawk.

Website: www.backcountrypilot.org

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